As Chief Network Development Officer of Health Care Collaborative (HCC) of Rural Missouri and its Live Well Community Health Centers, Suzanne Smith prioritizes community connection and helping those in need. Smith has worked with HCC for six years and in her current role she oversees various programs and resources including the organization’s warehouse, school-based telehealth clinics, transportation services, Project Connect, and the team of community health workers (CHWs).

Smith helped establish HCC’s warehouse after she and Chief Clinical and Risk Management Officer, Amanda Arnold, saw a similar idea from a gentleman in Warrensburg. “When we saw it, we looked at each other like, we have to have one of these!” After bringing the idea to HCC CEO Toniann Richard, they filled the 7,500 square foot facility with items to give back to people in need. According to Smith, when a company has an overrun of products or the products don’t meet quality specifications (i.e., a broken shampoo bottle leaking throughout a box of others), the company pays for the entire pallet of items to be put in a landfill. HCC steps in to pick up and transport these items for free, provide a tax-deductible donation letter, and give these items to community individuals in need.

Items collected in the warehouse include laundry detergent, hygienic care such as shampoo, conditioner, body wash, deodorant, durable medical equipment, gently used mattresses, bed frames, box springs, furniture, and more. These items are also usually either expensive or unavailable to purchase with food stamps. “We try to give folks a hand up, not a hand-out,” Smith says. Mattresses are especially in demand as HCC is a go-to for the Missouri Department of Social Services Children’s Division; if a child needs a bed to remain in their home or get back to their home, they frequently rely on the warehouse. “It’s two-fold: we’re keeping a lot of things out of the landfill that are totally usable and helping folks who really need these kinds of things.”

Smith also oversees transportation services including the HealthTran initiative, created in June 2018, in partnership with the Missouri Rural Health Association (MRHA). Through HealthTran, the organizations find volunteer drivers to transport patients in their communities to medical, dental, behavioral, and wellness appointments. Transportation is a barrier in many rural areas where public transportation isn’t affordable or accessible, especially for many seniors who may not have anyone readily available to drive them around. HealthTran is free to patients with support from grant funding and volunteer drivers who are reimbursed $0.80/mile.

One of the greatest benefits of the service, Smith says, is the connections formed over time between volunteers and the patients they help. “Something unique that came out of this is the relationships that formed, they’ve become an extended family.” Smith mentioned that it’s common for the same driver to continue taking the same patient and often the pairs will exchange gifts, such as fresh tomatoes in the summer or candy during the holidays.

Smith’s passion for helping the community is especially evident when she spoke about Project Connect, a “one day public health event for adults.” The concept was mirrored after a Homeless Project Connect she attended in Warrensburg. While the families and individuals in the community were not necessarily homeless, she still saw a need for accessible resources and services. “Adults are the ones who fall through the cracks,” she says, adding that school counselors, nurses, and teachers help catch kids who are struggling while adults are on their own.

Project Connect features around 40-50 social service organizations that provide a variety of free services for adults in need including dental extractions and haircuts, the ability to sign up for Medicaid, food stamps, and enroll in ACA. Local high school students are even on hand to provide basic manicure services like fingernail painting.

Volunteers for the event are community individuals serving as “guides” for the day. Each guest is paired with a guide. Guests receive a variety of free services while guides help them learn more about resources in their community, staying connected after the event to ensure guests’ needs are met. At the end of the day, guests complete an exit interview and, depending on the season, may receive extra items from the warehouse such as coats or extra blankets during the winter. HCC typically holds three Project Connect events a year and hopes to hold another in late spring of 2021, even if COVID-19 requires the event to be held outside.

One of the greatest ways Smith encourages community individuals and organizations to connect is through HCC’s membership program. Members include critical access hospitals, clinics, social service organizations, food pantries, faith-based ministries, and other organizations and businesses. Membership tiers range from $150 -$1,000 per year. Members have access to the warehouse, participate in Project Connect, and are offered discounts on services like CPR training, to name a few. “We come together as one organization, one network, to try and help the folks in need in our community,” Smith says.

Members also have access to monthly membership and social service meetings, some of which feature guest speakers. “It’s a great time to come together to collaborate and build those relationships within the community to see what everyone else is doing. You probably know someone who needs a resource that’s going to be at one of those meetings.”

To learn more about HCC/Live Well programs and services, visit hccnetwork.org. The website accepts financial donations to support the 501 (c)(3) nonprofit, and sign-ups for an HCC membership. Anyone interested in becoming a volunteer driver for HealthTran may contact Chris Carney at 660.259.2440.HCC owns and operates Live Well Community Health Centers in Buckner, Concordia, Lexington, and Waverly, as well as two school-based Centers in Orrick and Carrollton.